Dallas redux

May 3, 2006

First, the truly exciting news: Sean Carroll knows who we are! Or at least knows where this blog is. We’ve hit the big time in physics blogging! (An editorial we, of course.)

The April meeting was a blur while I was there, and it’s still a blur a week after. Since the talks not given by Special People (e.g. Sean Carroll) are ten minutes long, you get through a lot of them. The number of sessions that run concurrently means that you’re always missing something. There’s also this grad student solidarity curse: you want to make sure that people you know have an audience, even if you’ve heard their talk before, which means you fail to go to sessions where you might actually learn something new.

Very little of shocking significance was revealed at the meeting; you would have heard about it otherwise. So I’m not going to talk about the physics. However, I’ll mention the off-beat talk that I found most memorable: Yuri Orlov’s Sakharov Prize talk. While in the USSR, he became active in human rights monitoring issues, which got him sent to Siberia in the 70s. He was brought to the West as part of a spy exchange deal, and has since been with Cornell’s accelerator physics group.

He’s kept on working on human rights since then, and his talk was about issues of contention in that community — where people who all share the same abstract goal differ on how one pushes for it. Is it ok for campaigners to take sides in a conflict and ignore the behavior of their preferred group (Chechnya, Palestine, Darfur)? Should oppressors and the oppressed be held to the same standards? What is the interplay of human rights, political freedoms, and economic improvement, and should one take precedence to lay the groundwork for the others? Should human rights activists also push specific political programs? (He pointed out that Sakharov, for his part, always remained a commited Marxist-Leninist.)

To paraphrase a comment from his talk: “We know that there are many apparently simple problems in physics that are impossible to solve in closed form. Why do we then expect human interactions, which are so much more difficult to understand, to be optimizable by just sitting down and thinking really hard about it?”

And now, some other highlights (lowlights) of Dallas:

  • S.S. and I rode all the way around DFW on the new SkyLink, then wound up being the last people to board our flight home. I saw a Lockheed L1011.
  • In other train-related activity, I rode on both the Dallas commuter rail and light rail systems. They were average. The Chicago Metra would never tolerate the commuter rail delays.
  • It was too late for us to ride the M-line streetcar, but we stood on the tracks anyway.
  • Ever wanted to sit in a steam locomotive engineer’s seat? You can, in Dallas. (It wasn’t even my idea to go to that museum, honest.)
  • In one of the sessions, the two non-CLEO speakers pulled out, and the number of non-CLEOns in the audience fluctuated between zero and one. The session was promptly dubbed CLEO West.
  • We did not, after all, go to the tower dome next to the hotel. The night we wanted to go it was “closed for a private function.”
  • Should a session on professionalism in a physics career really run two hours over?
  • My teams are now two for two in winning trivia contests sponsored by the Forum on Graduate Student Affairs. Unfortunately this year I wound up being given a youth T-shirt as a prize by mistake, and let me tell you, it does not fit.
  • It is impossible to leave the Hyatt Regency to go anywhere in downtown and not pass within sight of the JFK Memorial and the Book Depository, to say nothing of the Grassy Knoll. It is slightly unnerving, especially as those sites appear to constitute the entire Dallas tourist industry.

And that’s that.

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